“Fists In the Mouth of the Beast”: On Irish Folklore -The Toast

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Caroline O’Donoghue’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

When I was in college, my University allowed me the option of studying several film history courses. If you’re nodding, that is because you also did an English degree, and half of the reason why you did it was because they promised you there would be film history courses, or art courses, or another kind of course that you didn’t have the guts to major in. I’m not judging you! You’re a certain kind of woman, you read a certain kind of website. I am also that kind of woman. 

I choose horror and noir. Noir didn’t offer anything I couldn’t have figured out already, and was predictably a little dude-centric. Interesting, but a yawn: predictably so if your poetry, drama and mythology classes are also about ageing men secretly upset about a war. Horror was something else.

the-thing-1I learned that horror films never exist solitarily, and are almost always part of a trend. The Thing From Another World and the countless copies it produced in the 1950s was no accident: it was because America was literally afraid of things from other worlds. Except in this instance, Another World was Russia, and the things were Russians, Russians, big gross fucking Russians. I’m aware that this sounds tediously plain to an audience which I know to include fifty thousand feminists with a Humanities degree, but to my 19 year-old self, this information was game-changing. Maybe it’s something I should have understood already, halfway through my second year of a degree that was effectively in storytelling, but I didn’t. All stories are connected.  All stories reflect a sentiment of something: some innate cultural nausea, some collective fever, something. And when they are strung together, big chunky beads from the hobby shop, they tell a story much bigger than the teller. They tell you about the Cold War. They tell you about tuberculosis. They tell you about yourself.

Like all epiphanies, this information eventually slipped away, kicked under the door of my consciousness. I wouldn’t think about it again for years. 

Anna is not someone I know well, but I know her well enough to like her. She’s dry and merry, somehow at the same time, and whenever I see her I like her even more. Coincidentally, she is the only other Irish person in my predominantly English group of friends. This is funny to people, particularly because she is from the Other Ireland. Anna and I play up to this when we see each other, miming fisticuffs across the room and making jokes about how we will burn each other’s primary schools down, given a lick of a chance. 

What our mutual friends don’t realise is that my being from the Republic of Ireland and her from Northern Ireland means we have totally separate experiences of Irishness. I had to endure four hours of Irish language class a day, and Anna was spared. Anna could enter the Nickelodeon phone-in polls, while my brother and I mourned (we’re Irish, it’s what we do) that Watch Your Own Wednesday was “not open to ROI”. I’m sure there are things she envies me for – lack of terrorist attacks in my lifetime, for example – but that’s another matter entirely. There are a hundred thousand tiny differences between us that, when measured, amount to two very different mason jars.

At the particular dinner party though, we find our separate notions of Irishness scuttling toward each other like rat babies in the dark. 

“What about the one,” says Anna, “the one where the kids are turned into swans.”

“The Children of Lir,” I say.

“YES.” she replies, in that happy way when someone confirms something you haven’t thought of in years. “YES. HOW DID THAT GO.”

I retell quickly, and for the benefit of our English friends.

Ler_swans_MillarThere was once a widowed Irish king named Lir, with three beautiful children that he loved very much. Like all men in folklore who love their children very much, he ends up marrying Aoife, a secretly evil hottie who is also magic. Jealous of her stepchildren, and ever-aware of the inheritance they will deny her own children, Aoife turns them into swans while Lir is away on King Business, and then – well. And then that’s it.

There are different ends to the story, but the one I’m most familiar is that the Children spend 700 years as swans, until they hear church bells and are transformed back into their human selves. The bells are important, and in some versions of the story, the bells are a monk. Whichever you prefer. Each signifies the end of paganism and magic -all magic, black and white – in Ireland. Christ set the children free, where magic had only doomed them as sad ornaments.

You have to admit, as an ending it’s about as satisfying as the epilogue in Ocarina of Time. Even IF it’s okay that magic is dead, how are three ancient children who have just spent 700 years as SWANS going to deal with it? Their father is dead. Their kingdom long gone. Even the internal logic of what was keeping them trapped as swans no longer exists. This is the pattern of most stories in Irish folklore. A bad thing happens, a thing that is not fair and that you are not responsible for, and you must suffer for it eternally. Your pain will be deep and utterly random. Your punishment is incidental. 

When he was a boy, my Grandfather’s neighbour was shot in the forehead during a raid in her neighbourhood. She had been standing in her doorway, holding her son.

In the story of Tír na nÓg (literally meaning “The Land of the Young”) Oisín falls in love with Niamh, a girl from the enchanted Tír. He stays for three years in Tír na nÓg, before growing homesick. He sets his foot on Irish soil. He realises that he has not been away three, but three hundred years. He dies immediately. 

The year he turned 60, my father and almost his entire peer group lost their jobs, in Ireland’s largest economic recession since the last one. I call from England on the day of his birthday and they are eating spaghetti.

You cannot trust the ground underneath your feet. You will not deserve the pain you encounter.  Your children will emigrate. The logic that held your world together one day will not exist the next.  

Our English friends are puzzled. Their stories are valiant. Dragons are slain. Swords are pulled from rocks. Tables are rounded. And it makes sense that their stories would follow this pattern: they are a nation primed for victory. The stop-start nature of our stories seem to always prompt “…and then what happened?” followed by an inevitable “They all died.” 

Not everyone dies, of course. Most people, but not everyone. Irish mythology has its triumphs, and its own bevy of heroes that stand atop them: we have our version of Achilles, our Hercules, our Elvis Presley. The most famous of these is Cú Chulainn (koo kull-ann), without whom no Irish children’s colouring book would be complete. Holding his story at arm’s length, Cú Chulainn’s story could not be more basic. He saves lives, wins epic battles, and systematically shags every princess and priestess in Ireland. Cú Chulainn is like no other Celtic man. Except, of course, that Cú Chulainn is every Celtic man.  

CuslayshoundThe only word that exists for Cú Chulainn’s affliction is ríastrad, which loosely means “warp spasm” and is probably the greatest word in the Irish language. Ríastrad takes the form of a kind of battle frenzy, where Cú’s rage escalates to the point that he can no longer tell friend from foe. This is what a warp spasm looks like:

“(The riastrad) made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front…”

Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 150–153

In my two and a half decades of knowing, loving and being related to Irish men, I have yet to meet a single one that doesn’t hold a deep furnace of rage within them. I honestly do not believe that one exists. This deep and contorting rage that seems to turn Cú into a hideous goat monster, is the same fist-clenching, wall-hitting, hot-spit fury that you are eventually destined to stand back from and go “woahh, buddy.” Whether it rears its goat-monster head in your boyfriend’s bedroom or in the movie Snatch is unimportant. The stereotype is as overused as it is accurate.  

Equally, there are stories about Cú Chulainn that are as achingly familiar and delightfully Irish as sex in a church car park. As a teen, Cú (then simply ‘Setanta’) gets so involved in a game of hurling (sort of halfway between baseball and hockey) that he neglects to show up for a feast at the fort of Culann, where he is the guest of honour. Culann, giving Setanta up for a no-show, releases his hound to guard the grounds, only for Setanta to arrive hours later. Setanta drives his ball so far down the hound’s neck that he kills it instantly. Culann is appalled: Setanta is mortified, and suggests that he will act as Culann’s hound until a satisfying replacement is found. From then on, Setanta is Cú Chulainn – the hound of Culann. 

There is possibly no greater parable for loving an Irish person as accurate as this one. It’s a story of deep unreliability and inherent scattiness, of knee-jerk reactions, and of incredible self-involvement. But also, it’s a story of commitment, and of showing up for people, and when you show up for them, really showing up for them. It’s paying your debts back too magnanimously, confusedly, as if trying to pair a black sock with ten thousand ones that are very-almost black.  It’s the self-destructive need to disappoint people, just for the satisfaction of clawing your way back into their favour again. You widen your space in the hearts of others by virtue of having left and come back in through the same door.  

This is the kind of girlfriend I am, and the kind of woman I will always be. This is the people we are. Three hours late to the party, with our fists in the mouth of the beast. 

Caroline is an Irish writer living in London. She is the editor of Work in Prowess and is known mostly for her work on dachshunds.

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